Dreams of Canadian satellite launcher form company’s support for Launch Canada

Stein Astronautics engine test stand. Credit: Stein Astronautics.

When Launch Canada recently pivoted its competition-based experience for students into figuring out how to fire a rocket engine, Stein Industries division Stein Astronautics was among the companies helping out.

President Dan Steinhaur served as range safety officer for the effort, which ended up running a successful test late last month. It’s only one of Steinhaur’s many ventures into mentoring students over the last dozen years, because his company wants to provide a pathway for young talent.

“You’ve got to give the students something tangible, real and exciting to learn about the joy and frustration of engineering and system design,” Steinhaur told SpaceQ. “Whether it’s electrical, mechanical, electronic or telemetry, you’ve got to give them that flavour to realize the importance of [engineering], and how it’s all mission critical,” he said.

Steinhaur’s company has been in operation for more than 25 years. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his mentorship work began – at all places – with the Ansari XPRIZE project to launch the first privately built spacecraft into suborbital space twice over. 

A predecessor to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, known as SpaceShipOne (manufactured by Scaled Composites) claimed the prize in 2004. But Canada was among many countries in competition, and Steinhaur was on the team of the Canadian Arrow. 

While the Arrow venture shut down post-prize, the engine test stand remained, Steinhaur said. By that point they had “more or less completed” the engine design, which was based on the German V-2 rocket engine. Subsequently, Stein test-fired a liquid fueled engine in 2009 that generated 31,000 pounds of thrust for 12 seconds.

Steinhaur, seeking further engine development opportunities and regularly participating in conferences to spread the word about Stein’s work, eventually got into conversation with Bjarni Tryggvason, a Canadian astronaut then working at the University of Western Ontario – today’s Western University. It turned out Tryggvason was teaching a space systems design class at the university and needed a project for the students, providing the perfect solution for Steinhaur’s desire to mentor up-and-coming engineers.

Tryggvason’s students then helped Stein with the second stage of the rocket, pushing forward design of a smaller, 8,000 pound thrust engine. This work caught the attention of Concordia University, which was also seeking experience in engine development; the work of students there, with the mentorship of Stein, eventually allowed the company to test an engine able to generate 1,000 pounds of thrust for four or five minutes.

The Launch Canada mentorship next came about because Steinhaur, like many senior executives in the Canadian space industry, is always trying to combat the worries of a “brain drain” to jurisdictions such as the United States, which has a larger space industry and potentially more opportunities for graduates. Steinhaur, recalling the Ansari XPRIZE, said the value of Launch Canada is it provides cash prizes for students looking to develop their skills in rocketry. Then in turn, industry can hire these students for Canada’s short-term goal – to launch rockets on our own soil.

“Unfortunately, along comes COVID,” Steinhaur continued. “It’s very difficult for the students to work in their laboratories under COVID restrictions, and they were all working towards either using conventional off-the-shelf solid fuel rocket motors, so that they could get their feet wet in high power rocketry, or … working on liquid fueled rocket engine technology.”

Since COVID made it “virtually impossible” for these students to access shops for safety reasons, Launch Canada president Adam Trumpour provided a little LR-101 engine for a test-fire. As SpaceQ previously reported, several sponsors stepped in for assistance and Stein was glad to provide Steinhaur as the range safety officer. Steinhaur, like Trumpour, is eager to see the rocket testing continue to evolve on Launch Canada’s side.

“My reasoning is both altruistic and selfish in that I really need some good talent, available here in Canada, to eventually help with the design and development of a liquid fuel satellite launcher,” Steinhaur said. 

Pointing to Spaceport America’s annual Cup as an example, he said that big companies such as Boeing do show up there to recruit students post-graduation. In a large field of thousands of students, the Canadians who participate do tend to stand out, Steinhaur said.

“Canadian teams typically end up garnering at least half the trophies, even though we make up about 10 percent of the participants, so we’re pretty clever guys. We really are.” 

Steinhaur said he is glad to see the students as individuals receive such offers from big American companies, as “that’s really a feather in the cap,” but on his own side he worries about the implications for Canadians. But he said the smaller companies within Canada still provide opportunity for growth, including his own.

“Designs are in the works at Stein, and we look forward to be able to recruit some of the best and the brightest from our Canadian universities to make this work,” he said in a follow-up e-mail to SpaceQ.

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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